When you introduce a new baby into the family, you want your older child (or children) to be excited, just as you are. But it's rarely an easy transition for the older sibling, who experiences much more downside from this new relationship than we usually want to admit.
You probably already know to spend daily one-on-one time with each older child, and to keep your relationship with each child positive. Your ability to take delight in your older child is the single best protection against her feeling sibling rivalry toward the baby.
But did you know that there are also many things you can do to foster a sweet relationship between your children, even while one is still a baby? Here are ten ideas that are easy to use -- even if you're sleep deprived!
1. Whenever possible, snuggle up with both your infant and your older child,
so those feelings of big love they feel on your lap get transferred toward each other. If you can get them both laughing, the oxytocin they’re releasing will also help them bond. Every relationship needs 5 positive interactions for every negative interaction, so consciously work to get positive interactions happening between your kids. Laughter and physical contact stimulate bonding hormones like oxytocin and reduce stress hormones, so every time you get your children laughing or snuggling together, you strengthen their positive bond.
2. Talk about how each child is feeling, in front of the other.
Research shows that when parents discuss the baby’s feelings and needs, preschoolers interact more positively with their siblings, even a year later.[i] “Look at Martina’s face…How do you think she’s feeling? What can we do to help her?” You can further humanize your youngest by using her name, instead of calling her “the baby.”
This also works in reverse. Talk to the baby, in front of the older child, about the sibling’s needs and emotions. “Your brother is sad right now, so he needs extra hugs... Your brother needs time with his mom, too.” Can the baby understand? Over time, she will. Most important, this helps your older child feel that his needs are as important to you as the baby’s. Acknowledging feelings raises the EQ of everyone in your family.
3. Bring the baby into the big kid's world.
If your child is always playing on the floor while you're always sitting in the rocker feeding the baby, your child will feel the separation. Whenever you can, sit on the floor next to your older child while he plays, wearing your infant and letting her watch. It's even worth figuring out how to get comfortable feeding the baby on the floor, if you can do it, just so your older child doesn't feel so left out during those incessant feedings.
4. As you tend to the baby, invite the involvement of the older child and honor her contributions.
“Oh no, why is your little sister crying? Let's go see what we can do to make her happy…..You were right, she was hungry, see she stopped crying! Your baby sister really appreciates how you understand her and try to help her when she needs something. You know that babies need love more than anything.”
5. Stay calm and redirect.
Of course, sometimes the older sib’s help won’t be helpful. Is she singing too loudly into the infant’s ear? Trying to feed the baby her carrot? Take a deep breath and redirect. Suggest she stroke the baby instead of singing, or show the baby her carrot instead of putting it in his mouth. You can also suggest that she practice on her doll. Staying calm and redirecting takes a lot of self-control for you, but it makes a tremendous difference in helping your child find constructive ways to relate to her sibling, instead of feeling pushed aside when her attempts to connect are clumsy.
6. Give the older sib some responsibility.
Kids love to be in charge of something. How about entertaining the baby during diaper changes, or singing a song at bedtime? He’ll take the responsibility seriously, if you do.
7. Encourage your child to amuse the baby.
Babies love it when big sibs are silly with them. As your infant begins to smile and laugh in response, help your older child to notice the baby’s affection. Soon they’ll be nurturing their own cycle of amusement and adoration.
8. Don't belittle the baby to build the child up.
Parents often make disparaging remarks about the baby so the older child will feel better. (“Babies sure are smelly! I’m so glad you use the potty.”) It’s fine for your child to feel angry or jealous, but you don't want to model that it's okay to demean others. So don’t be mean about the baby, even in jest, or you’re giving your child permission to be mean-spirited. Instead, resist the urge to compare. Each child is wonderful, and at their own stage, on their own timetable. Appreciate THAT child without comparison to any other child.
9. Work to create an atmosphere of appreciation in your house.
Every night at dinner, have each person find at least one specific thing to "appreciate" about each other person: "I appreciate that Daddy cooked such a delicious dinner….I appreciate that Jasmine helped me so much today at the grocery store….I appreciate that Baby Jack took such a long nap so Jasmine and I could play that fun game with her zoo animals.” You’re helping your child develop the habit of appreciating her sibling, which melts away resentment. Before you know it, they’ll be appreciating each other spontaneously.
10. Do something for yourself.
Really. Hand the baby to someone else, if that’s possible, and go soak in the tub. If you have two or more children needing you right this moment, sit down on the floor and tend to everyone’s needs as best you can, but promise yourself that as soon as another adult is present, you’re taking a break. Your children depend on you to stay emotionally regulated, and that means you need to keep your own cup full. Figure out what keeps you centered, and work it into your schedule. Fostering a healthy sibling relationship requires that you stay in balance yourself.
[i] Dunn, J. & Kendrick, C. (1982) Siblings: Love, Envy and Understanding. Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press.
Want to raise brothers and sisters who love and support each other? Get your hands on Dr. Laura's book Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How To Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life.
“Refreshingly positive and respectful in its tone, Peaceful Parents, Happy Siblings lovingly guides parents by using scripts and practical examples, essential tools for any parent with more than one child. Dr. Laura's compassionate approach is empowering for parents, and liberating for children.” — Lysa Parker and Barbara Nicholson, Founders of Attachment Parenting International